I'm a little fuzzy on some of the details of this world, but, basically, there are Meisters and there are weapons. A Meister is someone who wields a weapon, while the weapons are actually humans who can turn into weapons that can be wielded by Meisters. At the Death Weapon Meister Academy, young Meisters try to turn their weapons into a Death Scythe, a weapon fit to be wielded by Death, the academy's headmaster. In order to do this, Meisters and their weapons must collect the souls of 99 evil humans and one witch. Any mistakes or failures mean that they must start all over again.
The series focuses on Maka, a Meister, and Soul, her weapon (who takes the form of a scythe), as well as a few of their friends. Maka is a studious, rule-abiding student, while Soul is more laid back and just want to act "cool." They are joined by two other Meisters, Death the Kid (Death's son, who has an almost crippling obsession with symmetry) and Black Star (a loud, arrogant ninja who feels he is destined to surpass God). Death the Kid's weapons include Patty and Liz, who take the forms of guns. Black Star's weapon is Tsubaki, who can take the forms of several different kinds of weapons.
I originally thought the series was going to focus primarily on Maka and Soul's journey to turn Soul into a Death Scythe (apparently this does happen in the manga the anime is based on), but instead the series eventually focuses on an enemy determined to spread madness throughout the world.
If the length of a series like Naruto or Bleach scares you, but you'd still like to try a shounen series, this show might be for you. Its shorter overall length also means that the storyline is a little tighter than some of those other shows.
But still not tight enough. One of the show's biggest weaknesses is its pacing, which I think contributed to me basically getting tired of it and taking that long break a little over halfway through it. Although some parts of it are very action-oriented and fast-paced, other parts drag on and on. The final battle, for example, drags on for several episodes before rushing to a conclusion that didn't feel in keeping with the world's rules.
Another one of the series' weaknesses was the world itself, which didn't seem to have been completely thought through. Yes, the Meister/weapon system is really interesting. However, I could never figure out how the world in this series actually worked. At first I assumed that Maka, Soul, and the rest where residents of some kind of Underworld, occasionally dropping by the world of the living to defeat beings with evil souls. Eventually, I decided that the Death Weapon Meister Academy was actually part of the world, and not in some kind of separate Underworld. Not everyone in the world was either a Meister, a weapon, or someone to be defeated...so where did that leave everyone else?
I'm not sure that viewers were ever supposed to be thinking about things like that. This is the kind of series that would prefer you focus on its visuals and flashy fight scenes, both of which I did really like. The look of this series is really interesting and made me think of some kind of cross between Harry Potter and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and, like any good shounen series, there were plenty of fun, flashy fight scenes. Those things are part of the reason why I started watching the show in the first place.
Another reason why the show initially had me hooked was the characters. There are tons of them, and most of them are a lot of fun. I liked Maka and Soul, of course, but there were also plenty of enjoyable minor characters. Death the Kid was my favorite young Meister. Although it's probably a good thing that the series toned down his love of symmetry in later episodes, I enjoyed how completely messed up he was while still managing to be awesome (despite the distractingly strange grip he uses when wielding Patty and Liz in their gun forms - he shoots with his pinkies, rather than his index fingers). If you have ever watched and enjoyed the series Monk, Death the Kid is basically Monk if he were an action hero.
Another recurring character I really liked was Stein. He's an adult Meister and technically one of the good guys, but he's so prone to madness that his status as an ally tends to be shaky at best. He's an awesome fighter, and I loved watching him mess with other characters' heads.
Like Stein, Chrona was one of those characters I at first doubted I would ever come to love. He (or she - I've read theories saying that Chrona might be either gender) is very much an enemy at first, and still can't be entirely trusted after he becomes an ally. Although he's a relatively strong fighter, his doubts and fears make him one of the weakest characters in the series. I grew to like him because he was like a kicked puppy who was only starting to learn that he could be loved by others and that not everyone would be mean to him. He was badly in need of a hug, and I have a weakness for that kind of character.
I could go on and on about all the characters I liked for one reason or another, but I think I'll wrap this up with Mifune, one of the few good guy (sort of) characters who is neither a Meister nor a weapon. When Mifune first appeared, I assumed he was a throwaway character who just happened to be so cool he practically stole the episode he was in. I was happy when he made several more appearances in the series, even if that meant having to deal with Black Star's "I'm stronger than you" stupidity each time.
There was rarely a character I didn't like at one time or another. Possibly the only exception was Excalibur, who was funny...but only at first. Unfortunately, Excalibur shows up many more times throughout the series than I felt he needed to. When he popped up near the end of the series, I figured he might have arrived to lend a hand, in his own extremely annoying fashion...and then he just stood around and did nothing except insult people and occasionally make comments about the final battle with Asura.
After gushing about so many characters, I feel I should make it clear that character development is not this series' strong suit. Once a character's basic personality is established, the series tends to stick with that and offers viewers very little in the way of characters' pasts or even all that much growth. That doesn't mean they can't still be enjoyable, because I did enjoy so many of them, but they're not all as fleshed out as the characters in some other shounen series are.
Over at another blog (Dear Author, I think) I commented about YA fiction, saying that one of the things I like about it is that the young protagonists are often stripped, partially or completely, of reliable adult support and must somehow figure out how to stand on their own. Shounen anime and manga do the same thing, often going a step further by having the adults trust the young protagonists with responsibilities that adults in real life might think would be too much for them to handle.
This series does both those things. In the final episodes, Death's forces are spread so thinly that trusting some of the work to young Meisters is basically a necessary thing. Even in instances where the young Meisters have adults around them, those adults are often untrustworthy or badly flawed in some way. Death hides things from them, to the point that they are at times not even sure that he's still on the side of good. When the kids first meet Stein, he fights them. Later on, he literally goes insane, which makes him useless as backup and turns him into another enemy to fight, but even worse than other enemies, because they have to stop him without killing him or hurting him badly. Maka loves her mother, but she can't rely on her because she doesn't even know where in the world she is. Maka's father adores her and would do anything for her, but Maka can't bring herself to completely trust him either, because he can't seem to help flirting with any woman in his vicinity (which is exactly what destroyed his marriage to Maka's mother).
Overall, I liked this series enough that it's on my "To Buy" list, but there are enough so-so aspects to it that it's not particularly high on my list. The Meister/weapon system was really interesting, the humor and action were a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed many of the characters. However, the pacing could have been a lot better, certain aspects of the show felt cobbled together using pieces of other series (for instance, Black Star = Naruto), and the ending was pretty bad.
Since I haven't mentioned the ending yet, for those who are interested, yes, the ending does wrap things up for the most part - this isn't the kind of show that just ends, leaving you wondering where the rest of the story went. What annoyed me about this ending was that, after showing how powerful the enemy is, Maka and the others basically defeat him with nothing more than strength of spirit. There are some rousing speeches, and then characters who should be near death manage to work up the effort to stand, and techniques that previously did nothing to the enemy suddenly work. I wasn't impressed.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Naruto (manga) by Masashi Kishimoto; Naruto (anime TV series) - Like I said, Black Star is basically Naruto, only with a slightly different character design. If you loved Black Star, you need to try this series. It's about a young ninja who is determined to be recognized by everyone in his village as the greatest ninja around. At least at the beginning, I think the fight scenes are stronger in the anime than in the manga, but eventually the anime gets weighed down by fillers and (if you get past Naruto and into Naruto: Shippuden) sluggish pacing.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (book) by J.K. Rowling - Rowling's Harry Potter series shares lots of similarities with Soul Eater - a school setting, a headmaster who knows more than he's willing to tell, young main characters on whom the fate of the world depends, etc.
- Loveless (manga) by Yun Kouga; Loveless (anime TV series) - This one's more of a stretch, because the tone and feel of the series are nothing like Soul Eater. Ritsuka, an emotionally damaged young boy whose older brother died a couple years ago, is approached by Soubi, a young man who says he knew Ritsuka's older brother. Soubi tells Ritsuka that he used to be his older brother's Fighter and is now his Fighter, and Ritsuka is left to figure out what Soubi means and what, exactly, his brother was involved in before he died. I'm suggesting this series because those who liked the Meister/weapon setup in Soul Eater might find the Fighter/Sacrifice system to be of interest as well. The anime is lovely but takes its sweet time telling you anything and leaves viewers with more questions than answers. The manga, unfortunately, may never be finished in the US, since it was one of Tokyopop's titles. Although it's cruel, I'm suggesting it as a read-alike/watch-alike anyway.
- Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo; Bleach (anime TV series) - Another series with lots of awesome battles, interesting characters, and weapons that, though not characters in their own right, are each unique to their wielders. In this series, Ichigo, a high school student, accidentally gains the powers of a shinigami, a death god. He must learn to defeat creatures called Hollows and somehow figure out how to give his shinigami powers back to their rightful owner.